On Writing Politics

Jailed for Fiction



Update 9/3: And the other shoe has dropped. I should have known better than to trust a story based on reporting from local TV stations. Thanks, WBOC, “Delmarva’s Fake News Leader”! Turns out McLaw’s dismissal had little or nothing to do with his books, and more to do with a letter he wrote with suicidal undertones and a model of the school he was building in his back yard, according to the Baltimore Sun. Jeffrey Goldberg also has an excellent update at the link below.


Patrick McLaw, a teacher in Maryland, has been “disappeared” after writing a novel set far in the future detailing “the largest school shooting in history.” He’s been put on leave by his school district, and ordered into an “emergency medical evaluation.” No one knows where he is, but authorities say he’s no longer on the East Coast Eastern Shore of Maryland (apparently a different place than the “East Coast”).

More from Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic Monthly:

It is somewhat amazing that local news reports on this case don’t make clear whether McLaw is under arrest, and if so, on what charge. It is equally astonishing that the reporters on this story don’t seem to have used the words “First Amendment” in their questioning of law-enforcement officials, and also astonishing they don’t question the Soviet-sounding practice of ordering an apparently sane person who has been deemed unacceptable by state authorities to undergo a psychological evaluation.

It would be useful to know if McLaw is under investigation for behavior other than writing two novels—and perhaps he will be shown to be a miscreant of some sort—but so far, there is no indication that he is guilty of anything other than having an imagination, although on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as news reports make clear, his imagination is considered an active threat.

What’s next? William Gibson jailed for potential cyber warfare? Stephen King charged with possible random acts of spooky mayhem? George R.R. Martin sent to the dungeons for imagining rape, murder, and magical assassination? A posthumous prosecution of David Foster Wallace for possible drug use and writerly hubris? The penitentiary for E.L. James for numerous assaults on the English language? (Now there’s one I’d like to see.)

Oh, wait, unlike Patrick McLaw, none of these writers is black. Seems writing while black is as dangerous as traveling while black. I wonder why the Tea Party isn’t starting a revolution over these gross abuses of governmental authority?

On Writing Politics Song of Deirdre

Skyrim and the Possibility of Peace in a Violent World

Warning: this post contains spoilers for both the game of Skyrim and my novelization of that game, The Song of Deirdre. Also, it’s probably a lot of abstract drivel. To avoid that, just go read the novel. It’s free, after all, and several people tell me it’s not drivel.

screenshot of a Nord.
Just another Nord of Skyrim (Screenshot from Bethesda)

One of the great things about Skyrim is the impressive number of ways you can choose to play it. It’s an open world, so you pick which quests to follow, or none at all. In the opening scene, you create the character you will play throughout the game, choosing from two genders and ten races. You can marry either available gender and any of the ten races,¹ choosing from among the game’s eligible marriage partners.

photo of a Dunmer woman
A Dunmer woman

This means you can play as a hulking Nord who runs around bashing everything with his hammer, takes on the mantle of the Dragonborn, prevents the end of the world, and then comes home to wear the Amulet of Mara (propose marriage) to his Altmer (High Elf) boyfriend. Or you can play as a dual-wielding Dunmer (Dark Elf) thief who doesn’t want to get herself involved in the impending civil war and doesn’t believe the dragon-god Alduin will destroy all of Mundus. No, you just want to sneak around pickpocketing and grabbing whatever wealth you can, and then spend it on a particular Orc you have your eye on.

Here’s another intriguing option: to play the game as a pacifist. Several players have recorded their peace-making efforts on video, and the Wall Street Journal even ran a piece on it. For some players, this was just an “I can beat the game with one hand tied behind my back” kind of trick. For others, it was a philosophical and ethical approach to the game. With all the talk of video games either promoting violence or offering a safe release for violent instincts, this approach offered a third way: to pursue the possibilities of peace in what at first seems a typically bloody world based on medieval Europe.

On Writing

A Little Break

I’m taking a short break from posting chapters in The Song of Deirdre as I wrestle over some condensing and cutting.

Meanwhile, check out this hilarious video about women’s specific armor design. As Lydia tells Deirdre in Chapter 24, referring to Skyrim’s body-hugging women’s steel plate armor, “This is cunning metalwork, and very becoming, no doubt. But I’d sooner go naked than wear it.”

A lot of Lydia’s points about the sculpted breastplates comes from this article from The Mary Sue, which referenced this article on the practicalities of breastplate design.

Let’s let Lydia have the last word:

Lydia armor 2

On Writing Reviews

Why I Love – and Hate – Game of Thrones*


  • Because it’s about the real world, despite the dragons and the magic.
  • Because it’s a meditation on the uses and abuses of power.
  • Because it reminds that there is little hope, and terrible things always about to happen.
  • Because, like the real world, we’re never sure who the good guys are (no, not even the Starks, not even Daenerys) and who the bad guys are (well, maybe the Bastard of Bolton).
  • Because George Martin can somehow get me involved in a character’s life (even Jaime Lannister’s!) in just a couple of paragraphs. And just as in real life, the people I care about may be snatched away at any time.
  • Because I like strong female characters.
  • Because, like the real world, there is a looming threat (summer is coming!) that most people write off as a fairy-tale or hoax.
  • Because it doesn’t attempt to console me with a fantasy of good always prevailing over evil. If there is good in the world, it’s always provisional, individual, and mixed in with the evil.
  • Because, while I really just wanted an escape into fantasy, it won’t let me escape.

Storm of Swords cover*And by “Game of Thrones,” I really mean the Song of Ice and Fire book series.

On Writing

Wisdom from Ryan Brooks

I thought publishing a book would change my life. And it did, in some ways. It opened a few doors for me. But it’s as Ryan Brooks says: there is always only the work you have in front of you, today, in this moment. Or as Ryan puts it:

And I say this next part for the writers out there – don’t think that you’ll finish writing a book and your life will change. You will wake up the day after it’s finished just the same as any other day. You will find just as much joy in your milky, apple-laden porridge as you did the day before, and will the day after. Writing a book is a long game, but life is a longer one still.

Take the time to enjoy the journey, less than the destination.

Google fails me, but I think Hemingway said something like: The only way to know you’re a writer is to have written yesterday, to write today, and to know that you will write again tomorrow. Or as the musical theatre poet Jonathan Larson wrote: “There is no future/there is no past.”

Read more of Ryan’s post here. He’s pretty smart for a guy who just turned thirty.


Nature On Writing

Bleak Language

Anza-BorregoI was watching the Amgen Tour of California on TV the other day as the bike racers descended the Palms to Pines Highway into Palm Desert, passing through one of my favorite landscapes. After a year and a half here in inexorably green Michigan, it was refreshing to see the desert again, if only on HDTV.

Then announcer Phil Liggett called the desert “bleak.” Not just once, but at least three times. I bristled, as one might expect from a one-time desert writer. Just as I had bristled the day before, when he called the slopes of Mt. Palomar a desert. “No, Phil,” I yelled at the TV, “that’s chaparral. You should recognize it from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia!”

But calling the desert bleak? He had gone too far. I took to Facebook, and posted my outrage: “Phil Liggett annoyed me during yesterday’s Tour of California stage into Palm Desert and Palm Springs with his constant bleating about the desert being ‘bleak.’ It’s not bleak, Phil. It’s stark, maybe. Arid. Clean. Pleasantly uncluttered with trees. A bracing reminder that the earth doesn’t exist exclusively for human needs. But not bleak.”

Quite a few of my friends enjoyed the comment, and the photo I posted with it, but one decided that Phil’s word-choice was apt. He posted the first definition from the Oxford dictionary: “Lacking vegetation and exposed to the elements.” He said I owed Phil an apology.

Let’s leave aside connotation vs denotation. And the fact that all the other definitions present negative states or outlooks: dreary, not hopeful, miserable, forbidding. And that the word has its origins in the Old English blāc, which means shining or white, and that its roots go back even further to the Germanic, in which white was the color of death (thank you, Thomas Pynchon).

Instead I want to look at that first, literal definition, because it shows how the idea that the earth is created for human use is so deeply embedded in our language that we’re not even aware of it.

Does the desert really “lack vegetation”? The answer is: No!

But Larry, how can you say that? There’s a lot less vegetation in the desert than in a forest, isn’t there?

True, but the word “lack” doesn’t just mean “less,” it implies something about what should be. (And now, having been prompted to use the dictionary, I feel I have to return to it again: Lack means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”) To claim that the desert doesn’t have enough vegetation is absurd. Enough for what or whom? For humans, of course! But the desert has exactly the right amount of vegetation for a desert. All of the plants and animals that live there are uniquely adapted to extremes of temperature and infrequent rain.

To say that the desert needs more rain or more vegetation is to say that the desert shouldn’t exist. That the plants and animals that do make their homes there shouldn’t exist. And it’s only one step from that kind of thinking to the idea that vast fields of solar mirrors won’t hurt the desert, but will benefit it by providing all those poor animals some much-needed shade. (These statements come not just from ignorant internet commenters, but even from California’s governor. Take your shade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, Jerry.)

Heather MoorlandAnd it’s not just deserts that are described as lacking in vegetation, when in fact they have plenty. The example Oxford gives for that first definition is “a bleak and barren moor.” Google the term “bleak moor” and you’ll find a bunch of images like this one from Wikimedia, often in black and white, to underscore the, um, bleakness.

Obviously, this landscape is neither lacking in vegetation nor barren. It’s a functioning ecosystem, with lots of grasses and heather. Compared to many deserts, it has plenty of vegetation. (Although, if you said the Yorkshire moors “lack trees,” that could be technically true, because it seems they were tree-covered up until Mesolithic times. But there are moors that have existed for longer, and apparently weren’t created by human influence, in North Scotland and the Hebrides.)

So, if a land as lush with grass and heather as the moors can be described as bleak, maybe the word doesn’t mean “lacking vegetation” in a strict sense, just “lacking particular types of vegetation English-speakers like to see, such as trees.”

My desert nature writer’s license (for which the testing was onerous) requires me to quote Edward Abbey now:

‘This would be good country,’ a tourist says to me, ‘if only you had some water.’

He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.[!]

‘If we had water here,’ I reply, ‘this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey.’

The desert is a bleak wasteland only to those who believe every inch of the earth’s surface should be put to human use. And there are more and more who seem to believe this; some of them even consider themselves environmentalists (or at least “green”). It is truly dismaying that, after a hundred years of eloquent writing about desert landscapes from John Van Dyke and Mary Austin through Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams and a slew of others, much of the public still has this view of deserts as lacking something, as needing human intervention. One guy even has plans to “restore” the desert to grazing land, an idea that Chris Clarke eloquently rips to shreds.

So that’s the context in which Phil Liggett’s use of the term “bleak” landed. It’s just a reminder how careful we need to be with words, how archaic are the notions about the world embedded within them, and how changing our anthropocentric worldview is a whole uphill battle against the English language.